Friday, July 29, 2011

Found: Heart of Darkness

This is the portion of sky in which astronomers found the Segue 1 dwarf galaxy. Can you see it? Credit: Marla Geha

Using the DEIMOS instrument on the Keck II telescope, astronomers could identify which stars were moving together as a group. They are circled here in green. Credit: Marla Geha

By subtracting out all the other objects in the image and leaving the Segue I member stars, the “darkest galaxy” emerges. Credit: Marla Geha

All three images above are combined in this captioned mosaic
Credit: Marla Geha, Keck Observatory

Kamuela, HI – Astronomers using the 10-meter Keck II telescope in Hawaii have confirmed in a new paper that a troupe of about 1,000 small, dim stars just outside the Milky Way comprise the darkest known galaxy, as well as something else: a treasure trove of ancient stars.

By “dark” astronomers are not referring to how much light the galaxy, called Segue 1, puts out, but the fact that the dwarf galaxy appears to have 3,400 times more mass than can be accounted for by its visible stars. In other words, Segue 1 is mostly an enormous cloud of dark matter decorated with a sprinkling of stars.

The initial announcement of the “Darkest Galaxy” was made two years ago by Marla Geha, a Yale University astronomer, Joshua Simon from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and their colleagues. This original claim was based on data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the Keck II telescope. Those observations indicated the stars were all moving together and were a diverse group, rather than simply a cluster of similar stars that had been ripped out of the nearby and more star-rich Sagittarius dwarf galaxy. A competing group of astronomers at Cambridge University were, however, not convinced.

So Simon, Geha and their group returned to Keck and went to work with the telescope’s Deep Extragalactic Imaging Multi-Object Spectrograph (DEIMOS) to measure how the stars move not just in relation to the Milky Way, but also in relation to each other.

If the 1,000 or so stars were all there was to Segue 1, with just a smidgeon of dark matter, the stars would all move at about the same speed, said Simon. But the Keck data show they do not. Instead of moving at a steady 209 km/sec relative to the Milky Way, some of the Segue 1 stars are moving at rates as slow as 194 kilometers per second while others are going as fast as 224 kilometers per second.

“That tells you Segue 1 must have much more mass to accelerate the stars to those velocities,” Geha explained. The paper confirming Segue 1’s dark nature appeared in the May 2011 issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

The mass required to cause the different star velocities seen in Segue 1 has been calculated at 600,000 solar masses. But there are only about 1,000 stars in Segue 1, and they are all close to the mass of our Sun, Simon said. Virtually all of the remainder of the mass must be dark matter.

Stellar Old Folks Home

Equally exciting news from Segue 1 is its unusual collection of nearly primordial stars. One way to tell how long ago a star formed is by its heavy element content, which can be gleaned from the characteristic absorption features in the star’s spectrum. Very old or primitive stars come from a time when the universe was young and few large stars had yet grown old enough to fuse lightweight atoms like hydrogen and helium into heavier elements like iron and oxygen. Early, and therefore ancient, stars that formed from early gas clouds are therefore very low in heavy elements.

The researchers managed to gather iron data on six stars in Segue 1 with the Keck II telescope, and a seventh Segue 1 star was measured by an Australian team using the Very Large Telescope. Of those seven, three proved to have less than one 2,500th as much iron as our own Sun.

“That suggests these are some of the oldest and least evolved stars that are known,” said Simon.

Searches for such primitive stars among the Milky Way’s billions have yielded less than 30.

“In Segue 1 we already have 10 percent of the total in the Milky Way,” Geha said. “For studying these most primitive stars, dwarf galaxies are going to be very important.”

Dark Matter Demolition Derby

The confirmation of the large concentration of dark matter in Segue 1 underscores the importance of other research that has focused on Segue 1. In particular, some researchers have been looking with the space-based Fermi Gamma Ray Telescope in hopes of catching sight of a faint glimmer of gamma rays which could be created, theoretically, by the collision and annihilation of pairs of dark matter particles.

So far the Fermi telescope has not detected anything of the sort, which isn’t entirely surprising and doesn’t mean the dark matter isn’t there, said Simon.

“The current predictions are that the Fermi telescope is just barely strong enough or perhaps not quite strong enough to see these gamma rays from Segue 1,” Simon explained. So there are hopes that Fermi will detect at least the hint of a collision.
“A detection would be spectacular,” said Simon. “People have been trying to learn about dark matter for 35 years and not made much progress. Even a faint glow of the predicted gamma rays would be a powerful confirmation of theoretical predictions about the nature of dark matter.”

In the meantime, astronomers suspect there are other, perhaps even darker dwarf galaxies hovering around the Milky Way, waiting to be discovered. “We’d like to find more objects like Segue 1,” Simon said.

SDO Spots Extra Energy in the Sun's Corona

These jets, known as spicules, were captured in an SDO image on April 25, 2010. Combined with the energy from ripples in the magnetic field, they may contain enough energy to power the solar wind that streams from the sun toward Earth at 1.5 million miles per hour. Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA. View full disk

Like giant strands of seaweed some 32,000 miles high, material shooting up from the sun sways back and forth with the atmosphere. In the ocean, it's moving water that pulls the seaweed along for a ride; in the sun's corona, magnetic field ripples called Alfvén waves cause the swaying.

For years these waves were too difficult to detect directly, but NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) is now able to track the movements of this solar "seaweed" and measure how much energy is carried by the Alfvén waves. The research shows that the waves carry more energy than previously thought, and possibly enough to drive two solar phenomena whose causes remain points of debate: the intense heating of the corona to some 20 times hotter than the sun's surface and solar winds that blast up to 1.5 million miles per hour.

"SDO has amazing resolution so you can actually see individual waves," says Scott McIntosh at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. "Now we can see that instead of these waves having about 1000th the energy needed as we previously thought, it has the equivalent of about 1100W light bulb for every 11 square feet of the sun's surface, which is enough to heat the sun's atmosphere and drive the solar wind."

McIntosh published his research in a Nature article appearing on July 28. Alfvén waves, he says, are actually fairly simple. They are waves that travel up and down a magnetic field line much the way a wave travels up and down a plucked string. The material surrounding the sun -- electrified gas called plasma – moves in concert with magnetic fields. SDO can see this material in motion and so can track the Alfvén waves.

Alfvén waves are part of a much more complex system of magnetic fields and plasma surrounding the sun. Understanding that system could help answer general questions such as what initiates geomagnetic storms near Earth and more focused questions such as what causes coronal heating and speeds of the solar wind – a field of inquiry in which there are few agreed-upon answers.

"We know there are mechanisms that supply a huge reservoir of energy at the sun's surface," says space scientist Vladimir Airapetian at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "This energy is pumped into magnetic field energy, carried up into the sun's atmosphere and then released as heat." But determining the details of this mechanism has long been debated. Airapetian points out that a study like this confirms Alfvén waves may be part of that process, but that even with SDO we do not yet have the imaging resolution to prove it definitively.

Looking almost like seaweed waving in the water, these giant jets shooting off the sun's surface may hold enough energy to heat the sun's atmosphere, the corona, to well over a million degrees Fahrenheit. Credit: NCAR/Scott McIntosh. Play/Download video

When the waves were first observed in 2007 (more than six decades after being hypothesized by Hannes Alfvén in 1942), it was clear that they could in theory carry energy up from the sun's surface to its atmosphere. However, the 2007 observations showed them to be too weak to contain the great amounts of energy needed to heat the corona so dramatically.

This study says that those original numbers may have been underestimated. McIntosh, in collaboration with a team from Lockheed Martin, Norway's University of Oslo, and Belgium's Catholic University of Leuven, analyzed the great oscillations in movies from SDO's Atmospheric Imagine Assembly (AIA) instrument captured on April 25, 2010.

"Our code name for this research was 'The Wiggles,'" says McIntosh. "Because the movies really look like the sun was made of Jell-O wiggling back and forth everywhere. Clearly, these wiggles carry energy."

The team tracked the motions of this wiggly material spewing up -- in great jets known as spicules – as well as how much the spicules sway back and forth. They compared these observations to models of how such material would behave if undergoing motion from the Alfvén waves and found them to be a good match.

Going forward, they could analyze the shape, speed, and energy of the waves. The sinusoidal curves deviated outward at speeds of over 30 miles per second and repeated themselves every 150 to 550 seconds. These speeds mean the waves would be energetic enough to accelerate the fast solar wind and heat the quiet corona. The shortness of the repetition – known as the period of the wave – is also important. The shorter the period, the easier it is for the wave to release its energy into the coronal atmosphere, a crucial step in the process.

Earlier work with this same data also showed that the spicules achieved coronal temperatures of at least 1.8 million degrees Fahrenheit. Together the heat and Alfvén waves do seem to have enough energy to keep the roiling corona so hot. The energy is not quite enough to account for the largest bursts of radiation in the corona, however.

"Knowing there may be enough energy in the waves is only one half of the problem," says Goddard's Airapetian. "The next question is to find out what fraction of that energy is converted into heat. It could be all of it, or it could be 20 percent of it – so we need to know the details of that conversion."

In practice, that means studying more about the waves to understand just how they impart their energy into the surrounding atmosphere.

"We still don't perfectly understand the process going on, but we're getting better and better observations," says McIntosh. "The next step is for people to improve the theories and models to really capture the essence of the physics that's happening."

Karen C. Fox
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

NASA's WISE Finds Earth's First Trojan Asteroid

This artist's concept illustrates the first known Earth Trojan asteroid, discovered by NEOWISE, the asteroid-hunting portion of NASA's WISE mission. The asteroid is shown in gray and its extreme orbit is shown in green. Earth's orbit around the sun is indicated by blue dots. Image credit: Paul Wiegert, University of Western Ontario, Canada. Full image and caption

Asteroid 2010 TK7 is circled in green, in this single frame taken by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. The majority of the other dots are stars or galaxies far beyond our solar system. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA. Full image and caption

Trojan Asteroid Shares Orbit With Earth
Play video

PASADENA, Calif. – Astronomers studying observations taken by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission have discovered the first known "Trojan" asteroid orbiting the sun along with Earth.

Trojans are asteroids that share an orbit with a planet near stable points in front of or behind the planet. Because they constantly lead or follow in the same orbit as the planet, they never can collide with it. In our solar system, Trojans also share orbits with Neptune, Mars and Jupiter. Two of Saturn's moons share orbits with Trojans.

Scientists had predicted Earth should have Trojans, but they have been difficult to find because they are relatively small and appear near the sun from Earth's point of view.

"These asteroids dwell mostly in the daylight, making them very hard to see," said Martin Connors of Athabasca University in Canada, lead author of a new paper on the discovery in the July 28 issue of the journal Nature. "But we finally found one, because the object has an unusual orbit that takes it farther away from the sun than what is typical for Trojans. WISE was a game-changer, giving us a point of view difficult to have at Earth's surface."

The WISE telescope scanned the entire sky in infrared light from January 2010 to February 2011. Connors and his team began their search for an Earth Trojan using data from NEOWISE, an addition to the WISE mission that focused in part on near-Earth objects, or NEOs, such as asteroids and comets. NEOs are bodies that pass within 28 million miles (45 million kilometers) of Earth's path around the sun. The NEOWISE project observed more than 155,000 asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, and more than 500 NEOs, discovering 132 that were previously unknown.

The team's hunt resulted in two Trojan candidates. One called 2010 TK7 was confirmed as an Earth Trojan after follow-up observations with the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

The asteroid is roughly 1,000 feet (300 meters) in diameter. It has an unusual orbit that traces a complex motion near a stable point in the plane of Earth's orbit, although the asteroid also moves above and below the plane. The object is about 50 million miles (80 million kilometers) from Earth. The asteroid's orbit is well-defined and for at least the next 100 years, it will not come closer to Earth than 15 million miles (24 million kilometers). An animation showing the orbit is available at: .

"It's as though Earth is playing follow the leader," said Amy Mainzer, the principal investigator of NEOWISE at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Earth always is chasing this asteroid around."

A handful of other asteroids also have orbits similar to Earth. Such objects could make excellent candidates for future robotic or human exploration. Asteroid 2010 TK7 is not a good target because it travels too far above and below the plane of Earth's orbit, which would require large amounts of fuel to reach it.

"This observation illustrates why NASA's NEO Observation program funded the mission enhancement to process data collected by WISE," said Lindley Johnson, NEOWISE program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "We believed there was great potential to find objects in near-Earth space that had not been seen before."

NEOWISE data on orbits from the hundreds of thousands of asteroids and comets it observed are available through the NASA-funded International Astronomical Union's Minor Planet Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass.

JPL manages and operates WISE for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The principal investigator, Edward Wright, is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. The mission was selected under NASA's Explorers Program, which is managed by the agency's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah.

The spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

For more WISE information visit: .

Whitney Clavin 818-354-4673
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Trent J. Perrotto 202-358-0321
Headquarters, Washington

NGC 3115:Chandra Images Gas Flowing Toward Black Hole

NGC 3115
Credit X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Alabama/K.Wong et al,
Optical: ESO/VLT

JPEG (297.1 kb) - Tiff (32.9 MB) - PS (6.6 MB)

The galaxy NGC 3115 is shown here in a composite image of data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT). Using the Chandra image, the flow of hot gas toward the supermassive black hole in the center of this galaxy has been imaged. This is the first time that clear evidence for such a flow has been observed in any black hole.

The Chandra data are shown in blue and the optical data from the VLT are colored gold. The point sources in the X-ray image are mostly binary stars containing gas that is being pulled from a star to a stellar-mass black hole or a neutron star. The inset features the central portion of the Chandra image, with the black hole located in the middle. No point source is seen at the position of the black hole, but instead a plateau of X-ray emission coming from both hot gas and the combined X-ray emission from unresolved binary stars is found.

To detect the black hole's effects, astronomers subtracted the X-ray signal from binary stars from that of the hot gas in the galaxy's center. Then, by studying the hot gas at different distances from the black hole, astronomers observed a critical threshold: where the motion of gas first becomes dominated by the supermassive black hole's gravity and falls inwards. The distance from the black hole where this occurs is known as the "Bondi radius."

As gas flows toward a black hole it becomes squeezed, making it hotter and brighter, a signature now confirmed by the X-ray observations. The researchers found the rise in gas temperature begins at about 700 light years from the black hole, giving the location of the Bondi radius. This suggests that the black hole in the center of NGC 3115 has a mass of about two billion times that of the Sun, supporting previous results from optical observations. This would make NGC 3115 the nearest billion-solar-mass black hole to Earth.

NGC 3115 is located about 32 million light years from Earth and is classified as a so-called lenticular galaxy because it contains a disk and a central bulge of stars, but without a detectable spiral pattern.

Fast Facts for NGC 3115:

Credit X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Alabama/K.Wong et al, Optical: ESO/VLT
Scale Full image: 7.5 arcmin across (about 70,000 light years) | Inset image: 27 arcsec across (about 4,150 light years)
Category: Black Holes, Normal Galaxies & Starburst Galaxies
Coordinates: (J2000) RA 10h 05m 13.80s | Dec -07° 43' 09.00''
Constellation: Sextans
Observation Date: 3 pointings between June 14, 2001 and Jan 29, 2011
Observation Time: 43 hours 6 min (1 day 19 hours 6 min)
Obs. ID: 2040, 11268, 12095
Color Code: X-ray (Blue); Optical (Gold)
Instrument: ACIS
References: Wong, K., et al, 2011, ApJ 736L:23W, arXiv:1106.3069
Distance Estimate: About 32 million light years

VST Looks at the Leo Triplet — and Beyond

PR Image eso1126a
VST’s view of the Leo Triplet and beyond

PR Image eso1126b
The triplet of galaxies Messier 65, Messier 66 and NGC 3628 in the constellation of Leo

PR Image eso1126c
Wide-field view of the sky around the Leo Triplet of galaxies

PR Video eso1126a
Zooming in on the Leo Triplet of galaxies

A huge image, from the new VLT Survey Telescope (VST) and its camera OmegaCAM at ESO's Paranal Observatory, shows a triplet of bright galaxies in the constellation of Leo (The Lion). But the faint objects in the background, rather than the foreground galaxies, are what may capture an astronomer’s attention. The VST’s sharp view of these dim objects hints at the power of the telescope and OmegaCAM for mapping the distant Universe.

The VST [1] is the newest addition to ESO’s Paranal Observatory (eso1119). It is a state-of-the-art 2.6-metre telescope, which is equipped with a giant 268-megapixel camera, OmegaCAM [2]. As the name indicates, the VST is dedicated to surveying the skies in visible light, and it is the largest telescope in the world designed exclusively for this purpose. This large view of the Leo Triplet demonstrates the excellent quality of images produced by the VST and its camera.

The Leo Triplet is a magnificent group of interacting galaxies about 35 million light-years from Earth. All three of them are spirals like our own Milky Way galaxy, even though this may not be immediately obvious in this image because their discs are tilted at different angles to our line of sight. NGC 3628, at the left of the frame, is seen edge-on, with thick dust lanes along the plane of the galaxy. The Messier objects M 65 (upper right) and M 66 (lower right), on the other hand, are inclined enough to make their spiral arms visible.

Large telescopes can normally study only one of these galaxies at a time (see for example potw1026a and eso0338c), but the VST field of view — twice as broad as the full Moon — is wide enough to frame all three members of the group in a single picture. The VST also brings to light large numbers of fainter and more distant galaxies, seen as smudges in the background of this image.

In the foreground of the new image many point-like stars of varied brightness, lying in our own galaxy, can also be seen. One of the science goals of the VST is to search for much fainter objects in the Milky Way, such as brown dwarf stars, planets, neutron stars and black holes. These are thought to permeate the halo of our galaxy but are often too dim to be detected directly even by large telescopes. The VST will look for subtle events, produced by a phenomenon called microlensing [3], to detect these very elusive objects indirectly and study the galactic halo.

Through these studies, the VST is expected to further our understanding of dark matter, which is thought to be the largest constituent of the galactic halo. Clues on the nature of this substance, as well as on the nature of dark energy, are also expected to be found through the VST’s surveys of the distant Universe. The telescope will discover distant galaxy clusters and high-redshift quasars that will help astronomers understand the early Universe and find answers to long-standing questions in cosmology.

Very much closer to home, this image also contains the tracks of several asteroids within the Solar System that have moved across the images during the exposures. These show up as short coloured lines [4] and at least ten can be seen in this picture. As Leo is a zodiacal constellation, lying in the plane of the Solar System, the number of asteroids is particularly high.

This image is a composite created by combining exposures taken through three different filters. Light that passed through a near-infrared filter was coloured red, light in the red part of the spectrum is coloured green, and green light is coloured magenta.


[1] The VST programme is a joint venture between the INAF–Osservatorio Astronomico di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy and ESO.

[2] OmegaCAM was designed and built by a consortium including institutes in the Netherlands, Germany and Italy with major contributions from ESO.

[3] Microlensing is a gravitational lensing phenomenon by which the presence of a dim but massive object can be inferred from the effect of its gravity on light coming from a more distant star. If, due to a chance alignment, the dim object passes sufficiently close to our line of sight to the more distant star, its gravitational field bends the light coming from the background star. This can lead to a measurable increase in the background star’s brightness. As microlensing events rely on rare chance alignments, they are usually found by large surveys that can observe great numbers of potential background stars.

[4] These are either green or pairs of magenta/red trails. This is because the exposures used to make the green channel of the final colour image were taken on a different night to those used for the red and magenta, which were taken in sequence on the same night.

More information

ESO, the European Southern Observatory, is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive astronomical observatory. It is supported by 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 40-metre-class European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

Photos of VST


Douglas Pierce-Price
ESO, Public Information Officer
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6759

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A new way to measure the expansion of the Universe

The 6df Galaxy Survey data, each dot is a galaxy and Earth is at the centre of the sphere

A PhD student from The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Perth has produced one of the most accurate measurements ever made of how fast the Universe is expanding.

Florian Beutler, a PhD candidate with ICRAR at the University of Western Australia, has calculated how fast the Universe is growing by measuring the Hubble constant.

“The Hubble constant is a key number in astronomy because it’s used to calculate the size and age of the Universe,” said Mr Beutler.

As the Universe swells, it carries other galaxies away from ours. The Hubble constant links how fast galaxies are moving with how far they are from us.

By analysing light coming from a distant galaxy, the speed and direction of that galaxy can be easily measured. Determining the galaxy’s distance from Earth is much more difficult. Until now, this has been done by observing the brightness of individual objects within the galaxy and using what we know about the object to calculate how far away the galaxy must be.

This approach to measuring a galaxy’s distance from Earth is based on some well-established assumptions but is prone to systematic errors, leading Mr Beutler to tackle the problem using a completely different method.

Published today in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Mr Beutler’s work draws on data from a survey of more than 125,000 galaxies carried out with the UK Schmidt Telescope in eastern Australia. Called the 6dF Galaxy Survey, this is the biggest survey to date of relatively nearby galaxies, covering almost half the sky.

Galaxies are not spread evenly through space, but are clustered. Using a measurement of the clustering of the galaxies surveyed, plus other information derived from observations of the early Universe, Mr Beutler has measured the Hubble constant with an uncertainly of less than 5%.*

“This way of determining the Hubble constant is as direct and precise as other methods, and provides an independent verification of them,” says Professor Matthew Colless, Director of the Australian Astronomical Observatory and one of Mr Beutler’s co-authors. “The new measurement agrees well with previous ones, and provides a strong check on previous work.”

The measurement can be refined even further by using data from larger galaxy surveys.

“Big surveys, like the one used for this work, generate numerous scientific outcomes for astronomers internationally,” says Professor Lister Staveley-Smith, ICRAR’s Deputy Director of Science.

* The new measurement of the Hubble constant is 67.0 ± 3.2 km s-1 Mpc-1


Florian Beutler et al. “The 6dF Galaxy Survey: Baryon Acoustic Oscillations and the Local Hubble Constant.” Published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Journal, 25 July 2011.

More information:

Florian Beutler, ICRAR - UWA
Ph: +61 8 6488 7753 M: +61 420 996 916 E:

Professor Matthew Colless, Director, AAO
Ph: +61 2 9372 4812 M: +61 431 898 345 E:

Professor Lister Staveley-Smith, Deputy Director of Science, ICRAR Ph: +61 8 6488 4550 Mob: +61 425 212 592 E:

Media contacts:

Kirsten Gottschalk, ICRAR
Ph: +61 8 6488 7771 M: +61 438 361 876 E:

Helen Sim
Ph: +61 2 9372 7771 M: +61 419 635 905 E:

Animations & imagery:

Source: ICRAR

Gemini Image Captures Elegant Beauty of Planetary Nebula Discovered by Amateur Astronomer

Gemini Observatory image of Kronberger 61 showing the ionized shell of expelled gas resembling a soccer ball. The light of the nebula here is primarily due to emission from twice-ionized oxygen, and its central star can be seen as the slightly bluer star very close to the center of the nebula. The field of view is 2.2 x 3.4 arcminutes with north up (rotated 22 degrees west of north). Image processing by Travis Rector, University of Alaska Anchorage. A color composite image, it consists of two narrow-band images ([O III] and hydrogen alpha with three, 500-second integrations each) obtained with the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS) on the Gemini North telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawai‘i. Below the bright star at left is a barred spiral galaxy in the distant background, careful inspection will reveal several additional distant galaxies in the image. Credit: Gemini Observatory/AURA. download JPG 188KB | TIFF 8.1MB

In a partnership between amateur and professional astronomers, the recent discovery of a dying star’s last gasps could help resolve a decades-old debate among astronomers. That is, are stellar companions key to the formation and structure of planetary nebulae?

The discovery, by Austrian amateur astronomer Matthias Kronberger, is featured at an International Astronomical Union symposium on planetary nebulae this week in Spain’s Canary Islands. The research team’s work features a striking image of the new nebula obtained with the Gemini Observatory.

Not coincidently, the location of the new nebula (named Kronberger 61, or Kn 61, after its discoverer) is within a relatively small patch of sky being intensely monitored by NASA’s Kepler planet finding mission. Kepler's goal is to determine the frequency of Earth-sized planets around Sun-like stars. In the process, the effects of other close stellar and/or planetary companions are detectable.

“Kn 61 is among a rather small collection of planetary nebulae that are strategically placed within Kepler’s gaze,” said Orsola De Marco of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia who is the author of a 2009 paper speculating on how companion stars or even planets may influence and shape the intricate structure seen in many planetary nebulae. “Explaining the puffs left behind when medium sized stars like our Sun expel their last-breaths is a source of heated debate among astronomers, especially the part that companions might play,” says De Marco, “it literally keeps us up at night!”

NASA's Kepler Mission monitors a 105 square degree portion of the sky near the northern constellation of Cygnus the Swan. Kepler’s field-of-view is comparable to the area of your hand held at arm's length. The spacecraft continuously stares at more than 150,000 stars in the same patch of sky observing the changes in brightness. The presence of a companion can cause these brightness fluctuations through eclipses or tidal disruptions. However, most commonly in such binaries, the total amount of light received changes due to reflections from, and heating of, the companion by the star – analogous to the Moon’s phases. “It is a gamble that possible companions, or even planets, can be found due to these usually small light variations,” says George Jacoby of the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization and the Carnegie Observatories (Pasadena). “However, with enough objects it becomes statistically very likely that we will uncover several where the geometries are favorable – we are playing an odds game and it isn’t yet known if Kn 61 will prove to have a companion.” Jacoby also serves as the Principal Investigator for a program to obtain follow-up observations of Kn 61’s central star with Kepler.

To increase their odds, professional and amateur astronomers are working as partners to comb through the entire Kepler field looking for planetary nebula candidates. To date six have been found including this one by Kronberger, a member of the amateur group called the “Deep Sky Hunters.” The group, dedicated to finding new objects in our galaxy and beyond, has found two planetary nebulae in the Kepler field so far (including Kn 61) and a possible third, which, according to Jacoby, “…are extremely rare and each, a valuable gem.”

The detection techniques used by professional and amateurs are similar; in the case of Kn 61 images from the Digital Sky Survey (DSS) provided the data used in the discovery. “Without this close collaboration with amateurs, this discovery would probably not have been made before the end of the Kepler mission. Professionals, using precious telescope time, aren’t as flexible as amateurs who did this using existing data and in their spare time. This was a fantastic pro-am collaboration of discovery,” says Jacoby, who serves as the liaison with the Deep Sky Hunters (DSH) and requested their help to survey the Kepler field. Jacoby published a paper with DSH members in 2010 that describes the techniques used.

“Planetary nebulae present a profound mystery,” says De Marco. “Some recent theories suggest that planetary nebulae form only in close binary or even planetary systems — on the other hand, the conventional textbook explanation is that most stars, even solo stars like our sun, will meet this fate. That might just be too simple.”

However, Jacoby points out that observations from the ground have yet to find a high percentage of binaries associated with planetary nebulae. “This is quite likely due to our inability to detect these binaries from the ground and if so then Kepler is likely to push the debate strongly in one direction or the other.”

Planetary nebulae are common throughout our neighborhood of the galaxy with over 3,000 known and identified. Likely the “end of life” event for stars like our Sun, they form after nuclear fusion can no longer sustain the pressure of gravity in a geriatric star and it becomes unstable, pulsates and throws off a significant shell of gas from its outer layers. This expanding shell is what we see as a planetary nebula when its gas is ionized and glows due to the radiation still emitted by the central star. A key question with planetary nebulae is how companions (stars or even planets) around the central, primary star might impact the complex structures seen in many planetary nebulae. However, to date, a low percentage (about 20%) of these central stars have been found with companions. If this low fraction is due to the fact that the companions are relatively small or distant then current ground-based observations are simply not able to detect the companions – in which case the space-based Kepler telescope will likely be able to fill this observational gap.

The discovery, as well as the new Gemini image, were both presented today at the International Astronomical Union Symposium: “Planetary Nebulae: an Eye to the Future,” in Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife, Spain from July 25-29, 2011.

The research team includes: George Jacoby, Giant Magellan Telescope Organization and the Carnegie Observatories (Pasadena); Orsola De Marco of Macquarie University in Sydney Australia & the American Museum of Natural History, New York; Steve Howell, Deputy Project Scientist at Kepler; and the Deep Sky Hunter Matthias Kronberger.

Science Contacts:

George Jacoby
Instrumentation Scientist, GMTO Corp
Pasadena, CA 91101
Office: +1 (626) 204-0516
Cell: +1 (520) 904-4135

Orsola De Marco
Associate Professor, Department of Physics & Astronomy
Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW 2109, Australia
Office: +61-2-9850-4241

Matthias Kronberger
CERN BE-ABP, Hadron Sources & Linacs
1211 Geneva 23, Switzerland
Office: +41 (22) 767-1911
Cell: +41 (76) 481-4830

Media Contact:

Peter Michaud
Gemini Observatory
Hilo, HI 96720
Office: +1 (808) 974-2510
Cell: +1 (808) 936-6643

Monday, July 25, 2011

Sunset Glow in Orion

NGC 2023
Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
Click to Enlarge

The magnificent reflection nebula NGC 2023 lies nearly 1500 light-years from Earth. It is located within the constellation of Orion (The Hunter), in a prestigious area of the sky close to the well-known Flame and Horsehead Nebulae. The entire structure of NGC 2023 is vast, at four light-years across. This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope picture just takes in the southern part, with the subtle shades of colour closely resembling those of a sunset on Earth.

NGC 2023 surrounds a massive young B-type star. These stars are large, bright and blue-white in colour, and have a high surface temperature, being several times hotter than the Sun. The energy emitted from NGC2023’s B-type star illuminates the nebula, resulting in its high surface brightness: good news for astronomers who wish to study it. The star itself lies outside the field of view, at the upper left, and its brilliant light is scattered by Hubble’s optical system, creating the bright flare across the left side of the picture, which is not a real feature of the nebula.

Stars are forming from the material comprising NGC 2023. This Hubble image captures the billowing waves of gas, 5000 times denser than the interstellar medium. The unusual greenish clumps are thought to be Herbig–Haro objects. These peculiar features of star-forming regions are created when gas ejected at hundreds of kilometres per second from newly formed stars impacts the surrounding material. These shockwaves cause the gas to glow and result in the strange shapes seen here. Herbig–Haro objects typically only last for a few thousand years, which is the blink of eye in astronomical terms.

This picture was created from multiple images taken with the Wide Field Camera of Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. Exposures through a blue filter (F475W) are coloured blue, exposures through a yellow filter (F625W) are coloured green and images through a near-infrared filter (F850LP) are shown as red. The total exposure times per filter are 800 s, 800 s and 1200 s, respectively, and the field of view spans 3.2 arcminutes.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Astronomers Find Largest, Most Distant Reservoir of Water

This artist's concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole, similar to APM 08279+5255, where astronomers discovered huge amounts of water vapor. Gas and dust likely form a torus around the central black hole, with clouds of charged gas above and below. Image credit: NASA/ESA. Full image and caption

Two teams of astronomers have discovered the largest and farthest reservoir of water ever detected in the universe. The water, equivalent to 140 trillion times all the water in the world's ocean, surrounds a huge, feeding black hole, called a quasar, more than 12 billion light-years away.

"The environment around this quasar is very unique in that it's producing this huge mass of water," said Matt Bradford, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "It's another demonstration that water is pervasive throughout the universe, even at the very earliest times." Bradford leads one of the teams that made the discovery. His team's research is partially funded by NASA and appears in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

A quasar is powered by an enormous black hole that steadily consumes a surrounding disk of gas and dust. As it eats, the quasar spews out huge amounts of energy. Both groups of astronomers studied a particular quasar called APM 08279+5255, which harbors a black hole 20 billion times more massive than the sun and produces as much energy as a thousand trillion suns.

Astronomers expected water vapor to be present even in the early, distant universe, but had not detected it this far away before. There's water vapor in the Milky Way, although the total amount is 4,000 times less than in the quasar, because most of the Milky Way's water is frozen in ice.

Water vapor is an important trace gas that reveals the nature of the quasar. In this particular quasar, the water vapor is distributed around the black hole in a gaseous region spanning hundreds of light-years in size (a light-year is about six trillion miles). Its presence indicates that the quasar is bathing the gas in X-rays and infrared radiation, and that the gas is unusually warm and dense by astronomical standards. Although the gas is at a chilly minus 63 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 53 degrees Celsius) and is 300 trillion times less dense than Earth's atmosphere, it's still five times hotter and 10 to 100 times denser than what's typical in galaxies like the Milky Way.

Measurements of the water vapor and of other molecules, such as carbon monoxide, suggest there is enough gas to feed the black hole until it grows to about six times its size. Whether this will happen is not clear, the astronomers say, since some of the gas may end up condensing into stars or might be ejected from the quasar.

Bradford's team made their observations starting in 2008, using an instrument called "Z-Spec" at the California Institute of Technology's Submillimeter Observatory, a 33-foot (10-meter) telescope near the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Follow-up observations were made with the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy (CARMA), an array of radio dishes in the Inyo Mountains of Southern California.

The second group, led by Dariusz Lis, senior research associate in physics at Caltech and deputy director of the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory, used the Plateau de Bure Interferometer in the French Alps to find water. In 2010, Lis's team serendipitously detected water in APM 8279+5255, observing one spectral signature. Bradford's team was able to get more information about the water, including its enormous mass, because they detected several spectral signatures of the water.

Other authors on the Bradford paper, "The water vapor spectrum of APM 08279+5255," include Hien Nguyen, Jamie Bock, Jonas Zmuidzinas and Bret Naylor of JPL; Alberto Bolatto of the University of Maryland, College Park; Phillip Maloney, Jason Glenn and Julia Kamenetzky of the University of Colorado, Boulder; James Aguirre, Roxana Lupu and Kimberly Scott of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; Hideo Matsuhara of the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science in Japan; and Eric Murphy of the Carnegie Institute of Science, Pasadena.

Funding for Z-Spec was provided by the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Research Corporation and the partner institutions.

Caltech manages JPL for NASA. More information about JPL is online at .

Whitney Clavin/Alan Buis 818-354-4673/818-354-0474
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. /

Elliptical galaxies much younger than previously thought?

The galaxy NGC 5557 clearly exhibits extremely extended and faint tidal streams spanning more than 1.2 million light-years from left to right on this image from the MegaCam mounted on the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. Image by P.-A. Duc 2011 (c) CEA/CFHT. Hires Image

A sample of elliptical galaxies from the Atlas3D survey current collection, all showing clear signs of a recent collision. Image by P.-A. Duc 2011 (c) CEA/CFHT

The standard model for elliptical galaxies formation is challenged by a new result uncovered by an international team of astronomers from the Atlas3D collaboration. Team members from CNRS, CEA, CFHT, and the Observatoire de Lyon published in the scientific journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society the first results from their study on two elliptical galaxies exhibiting features characteristic of a fairly recent merging, suggesting they are five times younger than commonly thought.

The common belief on the mass assembly history of massive elliptical galaxies based on their stellar population leads to an age between 7 and 10 billion years old. A different story is shaping up based on ultra-deep images of two galaxies observed with the MegaCam camera mounted on the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT, CNRC/CNRS/University of Hawaii).

Astronomers from CNRS, CEA, CFHT, and the Observatoire de Lyon, all members of the Atlas3D international collaboration, established that the formation of the two studied elliptical galaxies (NGC 680 & NGC 5557) originated from a merger of two giant spiral galaxies that took place only 1 to 3 billions years ago. Such age estimate is based on the presence of ultra faint filaments in the distant outskirts of the galaxies. These features called tidal streams in the astronomers parlance are typical residuals from a galaxy merger. They are known not to survive in this shape and brightness for more than a few billion years, hence the new age estimate of the resulting elliptical galaxies. These structures were detected for the first time thanks to a very-deep imaging technique boosting the capabilities of CFHT's wide-field optical imager MegaCam.

The Atlas3D team conducts a systematic survey of more than one hundred nearby elliptical galaxies. If the current result based on the first two galaxies is confirmed on the larger sample, i.e. faint extended features are frequently detected, the standard model for elliptical galaxies formation should be revisited.


At CFHT: Jean-Charles Cuillandre
Tel +1 808-885-7944

At CEA: Pierre-Alain Duc
Tel +33 (0)1 69 08 92 68

The Atlas3D project: the merger origin of a fast and a slow rotating Early-Type Galaxy revealed with deep optical imaging: first results . Pierre-Alain Duc, Jean-Charles Cuillandre, Paolo Serra, Leo Michel-Dansac, Etienne Ferriere, Katherine Alatalo, Leo Blitz, Maxime Bois, Frederic Bournaud, Martin Bureau, Michele Cappellari, Roger L. Davies, Timothy A. Davis, P. T. de Zeeuw, Eric Emsellem, Sadegh Khochfar, Davor Krajnovic, Harald Kuntschner, Pierre-Yves Lablanche, Richard M. McDermid, Raffaella Morganti, Thorsten Naab, Tom Oosterloo, Marc Sarzi, Nicholas Scott, Anne-Marie Weijmans, and Lisa M. Young, Monthly Notices of The Royal Society, sous presse.

Atlas3D web site is here

The CNRS press release (in French) is here.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Exoplanet Aurora: An Out-of-this-World Sight

This artist's conception shows a "hot Jupiter" and its two hypothetical moons with a sunlike star in the background. The planet is cloaked in brilliant aurorae triggered by the impact of a coronal mass ejection. Theoretical calculations suggest that those aurorae could be 100-1000 times brighter than Earth's. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA). High Resolution Image (jpg)

In this animation, stunning aurorae ripple around a "hot Jupiter." When a stellar eruption known as a coronal mass ejection hit the planet, it triggered these aurorae, which are the planetary equivalent of Earth's Northern and Southern Lights. However, this exoplanet's aurorae shine up to a thousand times brighter than Earth's, and extend from the equator to the poles. Animation created by Hyperspective Studios. Credit: CfA. Animation (mov)

Cambridge, MA - Earth's aurorae, or Northern and Southern Lights, provide a dazzling light show to people living in the polar regions. Shimmering curtains of green and red undulate across the sky like a living thing. New research shows that aurorae on distant "hot Jupiters" could be 100-1000 times brighter than Earthly aurorae. They also would ripple from equator to poles (due to the planet's proximity to any stellar eruptions), treating the entire planet to an otherworldly spectacle.

"I'd love to get a reservation on a tour to see these aurorae!" said lead author Ofer Cohen, a SHINE-NSF postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

Earth's aurorae are created when energetic particles from the Sun slam into our planet's magnetic field. The field guides solar particles toward the poles, where they smash into Earth's atmosphere, causing air molecules to glow like a neon sign. The same process can occur on planets orbiting distant stars, known as exoplanets.

Particularly strong aurorae result when Earth is hit by a coronal mass ejection or CME - a gigantic blast that sends billions of tons of solar plasma (electrically charged, hot gas) into the solar system. A CME can disrupt Earth's magnetosphere - the bubble of space protected by Earth's magnetic field - causing a geomagnetic storm. In 1989, a CME hit Earth with such force that the resulting geomagnetic storm blacked out huge regions of Quebec.

Cohen and his colleagues used computer models to study what would happen if a gas giant in a close orbit, just a few million miles from its star, were hit by a stellar eruption. He wanted to learn the effect on the exoplanet's atmosphere and surrounding magnetosphere.

The alien gas giant would be subjected to extreme forces. In our solar system, a CME spreads out as it travels through space, so it's more diffuse once it reaches us. A "hot Jupiter" would feel a stronger and more focused blast, like the difference between being 100 miles from an erupting volcano or one mile away.

"The impact to the exoplanet would be completely different than what we see in our solar system, and much more violent," said co-author Vinay Kashyap of CfA.

In the model, a CME hits the "hot Jupiter" and weakens its magnetic shield. Then CME particles reach the gas giant's atmosphere. Its aurora lights up in a ring around the equator, 100-1000 times more energetic than Earthly aurorae. Over the course of about 6 hours, the aurora then ripples up and down toward the planet's north and south poles before gradually fading away.

Despite the extreme forces involved, the exoplanet's magnetic field shields its atmosphere from erosion.

"Our calculations show how well the planet's protective mechanism works," explained Cohen. "Even a planet with a magnetic field much weaker than Jupiter's would stay relatively safe."

This work has important implications for the habitability of rocky worlds orbiting distant stars. Since red dwarf stars are the most common stars in our galaxy, astronomers have suggested focusing on them in the search for Earthlike worlds.

However since a red dwarf is cooler than our Sun, a rocky planet would have to orbit very close to the star to be warm enough for liquid water. There, it would be subjected to the sort of violent stellar eruptions Cohen and his colleagues studied. Their future work will examine whether rocky worlds could shield themselves from such eruptions.

This research has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal and is available online.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.

For more information, contact:

David A. Aguilar
Director of Public Affairs
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Christine Pulliam
Public Affairs Specialist
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Four Unusual Views of the Andromeda Galaxy

PR Image heic1112a
Stars in the Andromeda Galaxy’s disc

PR Image heic1112b
Stars in the Andromeda Galaxy’s giant stellar stream

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Stars in the Andromeda Galaxy’s halo with background galaxies (1)

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Stars in the Andromeda Galaxy’s halo with background galaxies (2)

PR Image heic1112e
Labelled wide-field view of the Andromeda Galaxy

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Wide-field view of the Andromeda Galaxy

PR Video heic1112a
Hubblecast 48: Deep Observations of the Andromeda Galaxy

PR Video heic1112b
Zooming in on the Andromeda Galaxy

PR Video heic1112c
Panning across Hubble observations of the Andromeda Galaxy

PR Video heic1112d
Zooming in on stars in the Andromeda Galaxy’s disc

PR Video heic1112e
Zooming in on stars in the Andromeda Galaxy’s giant stellar stream

PR Video heic1112f - PR Video heic1112g
Zooming in on stars in the Andromeda Galaxy’s halo (1) and (2)

The Andromeda Galaxy is revealed in unprecedented detail in four archive observations from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. They show stars and structure in the galaxy’s disc, the halo of stars that surrounds it, and a stream of stars left by a companion galaxy as it was torn apart and pulled in by the galaxy’s gravitational forces.

These four observations made by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys give a close up view of the Andromeda Galaxy, also known as Messier 31 (M 31). Observations of most galaxies do not show the individual stars — even the most powerful telescopes cannot normally resolve the cloudy white shapes into their hundreds of millions of constituent stars.

In the case of the Andromeda Galaxy, however, astronomers have a few tricks up their sleeves. Firstly, images from Hubble Space Telescope have unparalleled image quality as a result of the telescope’s position above the atmosphere. Secondly, M 31 is closer to our own galaxy than any other spiral galaxy (so close that it can even be seen with the naked eye on a very dark night [1]). And thirdly, these observations avoid the crowded centre of the galaxy, where the stars are closest together and hardest to separate from each other.

The resulting images offer a different perspective on a spiral galaxy. Far from being an opaque, dense object, Hubble reminds us that the dominant feature of a galaxy is the huge voids between its stars. Thus, these images do not only show stars in the Andromeda Galaxy (and a handful of bright Milky Way stars that are in the foreground): they also let us see right through the galaxy, revealing far more distant galaxies in the background.

The four images in this release look superficially similar, but on closer inspection they reveal some important differences.

The two images taken in M 31’s halo show the lowest density of stars. The halo is the huge and sparse sphere of stars that surrounds a galaxy. While there are relatively few stars in a galaxy’s halo, studies of the rotation rate of galaxies suggest that there is a great deal of invisible dark matter.

Meanwhile, the images of stars in the Andromeda Galaxy’s disc and a region known as the giant stellar stream show stars far more densely packed, largely outshining the background galaxies. The galaxy’s disc includes the distinctive spiral arms (as well as dimmer and less numerous stars in the gaps between them), while the stream is a large structure which extends out from the disc, and is probably a remnant of a smaller galaxy that was absorbed by the Andromeda Galaxy in the past.

These observations were made between 2004 and 2007 to observe a wide variety of stars in Andromeda, ranging from faint main sequence stars like our own Sun, to the much brighter RR Lyrae stars, which are a type of variable star. With these measurements, astronomers can determine the chemistry and ages of the stars in each part of the Andromeda Galaxy.

The purpose of these observations also explains their exceptional depth: to gain useful data on dim, distant stars, a long series of individual exposures had to be made in each field. Together they combine to make images with a long exposure time. This has the side-effect of also revealing the faint background galaxies, which would otherwise have been invisible.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.

[1] The Andromeda Galaxy’s full diameter in the sky is actually around three degrees, six times the width of the full Moon. But the outer regions of the galaxy are much too faint to see without a telescope.

Image credit: NASA, ESA and T. M. Brown (STScI)

Images of Hubble


Oli Usher
Garching, Germany
Tel: +49-89-3200-6855

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Spitzer Sees Spider Web of Stars

IC 342's dust structures show up vividly in red, in this infrared view from Spitzer. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Full image and caption

IC 342 has a lower density of stars than what is typical for galaxies, as indicated by a very faint blue haze coming from starlight. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Full image and caption

Those aren't insects trapped in a spider's web -- they're stars in our own Milky Way galaxy, lying between us and another spiral galaxy called IC 342. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope captured this picture in infrared light, revealing the galaxy's bright patterns of dust.

At a distance of about 10 million light-years from Earth, IC 342 is relatively close by galaxy standards. However, our vantage point places it directly behind the disk of our own Milky Way. The intervening dust makes it difficult to see in visible light, but infrared light penetrates this veil easily. While stars in our own galaxy appear as blue/white dots, the blue haze is from IC 342's collective starlight. Red shows the dust structures, which contain clumps of new stars.

The center of the galaxy, where one might look for a spider, is actually home to an enormous burst of star formation. To either side of the center, a small bar of dust and gas is helping to fuel the new stars.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA. For more information about Spitzer, visit and

Whitney Clavin (818) 354-4673
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

NASA's Hubble Discovers Another Moon Around Pluto

Pluto's Moon System
Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Showalter (SETI Institute)
View this image

Hubble Space Telescope's keen vision has found yet another moon orbiting the distant, icy dwarf planet Pluto. This discovery expands the size of Pluto's known satellite system to four moons. The tiny, new satellite — temporarily designated P4 — was uncovered in a Hubble survey searching for rings around the frigid dwarf planet.

The new moon is the smallest moon yet discovered around Pluto. It has an estimated diameter of 8 to 21 miles (13 to 34 km). By comparison, Charon, Pluto's largest moon, is 648 miles (1,043 km) across, and the other moons, Nix and Hydra are in the range of 20 to 70 miles in diameter (32 to 113 km).

"I find it remarkable that Hubble's cameras enabled us to see such a tiny object so clearly from a distance of more than 3 billion miles (5 billion km)," said Mark Showalter of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., who led this observing program with Hubble.

The finding is a result of ongoing work to support NASA's New Horizons mission, scheduled to fly through the Pluto system in 2015. The mission is designed to provide new insights about worlds at the edge of our solar system. Hubble's mapping of Pluto's surface and discovery of its satellites have been invaluable to planning for New Horizons' close encounter.

"This is a fantastic discovery," said New Horizons' principal investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. "Now that we know there's another moon in the Pluto system, we can plan close-up observations of it during our flyby." Space Telescope Science Institute director's discretionary time was allocated to make the Hubble observations.

The new moon is located between the orbits of Nix and Hydra, which Hubble discovered in 2005. Charon was discovered in 1978 at the U.S. Naval Observatory and first resolved using Hubble in 1990 as a separate body from Pluto.

The dwarf planet's entire moon system is believed to have formed by a collision between Pluto and another planet-sized body early in the history of the solar system. The smashup flung material into orbit around Pluto, which then coalesced into the family of satellites now seen.

Lunar rocks returned to Earth from the Apollo missions led to the theory that our Moon was the result of a similar collision between Earth and a Mars-sized body 4.4 billion years ago. Scientists believe material blasted off Pluto's moons by micrometeoroid impacts may form rings around the dwarf planet, but the Hubble photographs have not detected any so far.

"This surprising observation is a powerful reminder of Hubble's ability as a general purpose astronomical observatory to make astounding, unintended discoveries," said Jon Morse, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

P4 was first seen in a photo taken with Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 on June 28, 2011. It was confirmed in subsequent Hubble pictures taken on July 3 and July 18. The moon was not seen in earlier Hubble images because the exposure times were shorter. There is a chance it appeared as a very faint smudge in 2006 images, but was overlooked because it was largely obscured by an imaging artifact, called a diffraction spike.


Ray Villard
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.

Karen Randall
SETI Institute, Mountain View, Calif.